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Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden sit in a room full of records, rehearsing for their Wassail at the Union Chapel, London

Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden: The Wassail Interview

Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden swap Yuletide memories with Jon Wilks, ahead of their Union Chapel Wassail.

Wassail, wassail, all over the town! Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden plan to take London’s Union Chapel by storm on December 21st, so we caught up with them for a taste of what’s to come. Expect Christmas cracker jokes aplenty, lots of wassailing talk, a kissing bough and a Wesley Bob, Boden’s roasted chestnuts, and sweet nostalgia for the days of yore. If it’s bonhomie and Yuletide cheer you’re after, you’ve come to the right place.

Christmas is not just for Christmas

Jon Boden

Hello, you two. What have you been up to for the last couple of years?

Eliza Carthy: [Laughs] Washing lots and lots of pants.

Jon Boden: Yeah, I’ve been doing lots of that, too. And I’ve been doing more and more cooking, but my cooking repertoire seems to have reduced to fish fingers and chips. Basically, the more I cook, the less able I am to cook anything other than fish fingers and chips.

EC: My repertoire has really shrunk as well. You start to notice that you’re cooking the same seven dinners over and over and over and over. “Oh, it must be shepherd’s pie night.” I’m turning into a 70s housewife.

So, what have you got brewing for Christmas? What’s this Wassail all about?

EC: If I ever make a Christmas album, shoot me.

I was actually going to start with that, because I’ve had this conversation with you before. You swore you’d never do a Christmas album.

EC: Yeah, artistic death. We’re ready for it now.

JB: We’re right on board.

What has changed?

JB: Well, I’ve always been in favour of getting as much money out of Christmas as possible. That’s been my philosophy [laughs]. Actually, I used to do a lot of Christmas stuff back in the day. Then I moved to Sheffield, right in the Sheffield Carols area, I was like, “Right, I’m not going to work at Christmas. I’m just going to enjoy the carols.” But then COVID happened – no money, no gigs – and I started to think about what Christmas things could be done [laughs].

EC: We’ve been talking for years about how it would be nice to do something, because we haven’t actually worked together since The Ratcatchers, apart from a few little one-off things. Nothing official.

JB: Right. And as neither of us were doing a Christmas thing, it lined up. We were both free in December.

Jon was going to roast his chestnuts, but we’re not allowed

Eliza Carthy

EC: The thing I’m worried about now is not so much the artistic death but Jon spending our entire budget on random Christmas crap for the stage.

JB: Just 20 fake Christmas trees, 10 feet each, and three grand’s worth of lights. That’ll be alright.

EC: Yeah, and a couple of 12-foot nutcrackers.

I’m sensing a Spinal Tap moment. Are you bringing a tiny Stonehenge?

JB: We worried about that. That’s why the trees have got to be massive. We’re not doing any of this, by the way, before anyone gets their hopes up. I did my best for the 10-foot Christmas trees… but there will be no 10-foot Christmas trees.

EC: I was on board for the 10-foot Christmas trees because it gets the tree buying out of the way, doesn’t it? We can just take them home afterwards.

JB: It could still happen. We’re not sure about the whole risk assessment element of having Christmas decorations onstage.

EC: I don’t think they were up for the open fire. Jon was going to roast his chestnuts, but we’re not allowed.

So, for the non-folkies reading this, what is a wassail exactly?

EC: You pour cider on a tree. Wassail is an old word that means, “be healthy”. Be of good health.

Hale and hearty.

EC: Yes. It has to do with apples. After things get cold and you’ve made your cider, you pour it on the tree to bless them ahead of next year, when we’ll have more cider.

Isn’t it also like a precursor to carol singing?

EC: Well, it sort of came into the idea of seasonal begging, when the harvest is done and all the work is finished. The workers would go around from house to house, essentially asking for their cider back [laughs]. “Hey, we made all this and now all the rich people are drinking it. Can we have some back, please? And have you got any pudding while you’re at it?”

JB: My memory is terrible these days. I feel like I once knew far more about the wassail than I do now [laughs]. I now know basically nothing about it, so thanks for filling that in.

EC: That’s OK. I feel like all of our brains have turned into various stages of mush over the last few years.

JB: We don’t need them. We’ve got Wikipedia now. Brains are very overrated.

Have either of you ever engaged in a proper wassail yourselves? Jon obviously can’t remember anything, so that question is really aimed at you, Eliza.

EC: I have never wassailed.

What?! You?! Never?!

EC: Never!

JB: Actually, I have been to an apple wassail, yes. Can’t remember much about it, though [laughs]. It was definitely in an orchard. There was some singing, there were some apples. Why do you want to know? Why are you grilling us like this?! What is this? Where is Paxman?!

EC: No, this is Piers Morgan. One of us has to cry [laughs]. I have never been wassailing, no. My folks used to sing about it a lot. There are a lot of wassailing songs in The Watersons‘ repertoire, so that was my way into knowing what it’s all about.

Are any of those songs going to make it to the Union Chapel Wassail?

EC: I didn’t want to just pinch The Watersons’ repertoire or anyone else’s repertoire. I’ve got one from Herefordshire which I’ve never heard anyone else sing before. We’re trying not to do too many that are obvious, but we’ll throw in the odd one here and there so that everyone can have a good singalong. Jon has got some really good ones, too. There might be some tears, there might be some joy. And there’s going to be an awful raffle [laughs]. I’m looking forward to that.

Do you have any particular favourite Christmas songs?

JB: The Sheffield Carols repertoire is quite special to me.

Have you been out to any of the sings already, Jon?

JB: Oh, yes.

EC: Are the Sheffield pubs full to bursting?

JB: They’re not full to bursting, no. I’ve been to three sings and they’re probably 50% of what you’d expect. That’s still actually quite full. 100% would be dangerously full, even without a pandemic! But it’s amazing to be doing it again. And I guess that repertoire is now quite ingrained in me. After 15 years of relentless carol singing, it’s always brilliant, but I’m definitely ready to stop after Christmas. You know, sometimes Christmas sneaks up on you and then it’s over. But not in Sheffield.

EC: Doesn’t it start around Armistice Day?

And doesn’t it run until January?

JB: No, it does eventually stop.

Thank god for that!

JB: [Laughs] It stops on Boxing Day, and then there’s another one for New Year. It goes on for a long time. I run a little village choir, as well, and this year we’re going out on four trails. Just in case the sings weren’t enough.

EC: What’s a trail? Is it like a pub crawl?

JB: Yeah, singing door to door. And then we go and sing in a pub. That kind of thing.

So, it’s basically non-stop Christmas?

JB: Yes, I’m struggling to not break into song right now. This is the longest I’ve gone without singing a Christmas carol [laughs, and then bursts into ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’]. There, I feel much better now.

You’ve known each other a long time, haven’t you? Many, many Christmasses must’ve come and gone.

EC: And he never writes. I never get a gift. What the hell? He did send me a birthday present this year, though. Which was nice.

When did you first meet, then?

EC: How long have we known each other? Was it the recording for Anglicana? 2003? 2002?

JB: I think it was 2001. You asked us along after we brought out the first Spiers & Boden album.

EC: I remember inviting you up for the Anglicana recording. The two of you arrived at, like, 9:30 in the morning, straight off the plane. And you basically went into the living room in Morton Hall in Edinburgh, where we were living at the time, and you just started playing. And then you didn’t stop for the whole 48 hours. It was half-nine in the morning and I was just about up. I went to try and wake Ben up. I was like, “Dude, they’re here. Should we record it?” And he said, “I don’t press record until after midday.”

JB: We were very keen.

EC: You were very young and eager.

Back to the Union Chapel Wassail, then. Is it all going to be traditional songs?

EC: Apart from all the hip-hop, yes.

JB: My Christmas rapping is worth the ticket price alone. (I’m not going to be rapping, by the way. That wasn’t true.)

EC: I’ve felt your presents, Jon.

Do either of you have any unusual family Christmas traditions? Anything old and unobvious?

EC: Yeah, we’ve got tonnes. We still have my great-great-grandmother’s kissing bough. That’s the first thing that goes up in the house.

A kissing bough?

EC: Yeah, I’ll explain. Up until I had my children, we never decorated until Christmas Eve. But having kids, they obviously want to start decorating the house pretty much the minute Halloween is over [laughs]. We have a rule now. My youngest was born on November 26th, so, generally, we will start getting the Christmas decorations out after that weekend. But we won’t decorate the tree until Christmas Eve.

The first thing that always goes up is my great-great-Grandma’s kissing bough, which is two hoops decorated with garlands. Every year we put something different on it, whether it be a clove, an orange or different kinds of fruit. We try and use the old Victorian decorations as well, although there are less and less of those every year, for obvious reasons. So, that goes up first, and it has a piece of mistletoe hung down the middle that goes up in the middle of the house.

JB: Is it the same as a Wesley Bob?

EC: I don’t know what a Wesley is, and my name’s not Bob.

JB: The Keighley Folk Club have an annual Wesley Bob competition. I don’t know if it could be something they just made up, but I got the impression it was an actual thing and you have to make one. It sounds like the same thing as your kissing bough – a spherical hanging thing. I won it one year. It was my greatest achievement, winning the Keighley Wesley Bob competition.

EC: Wow. That’s something. We also only have curry or bolognese on Christmas Eve. Does that count?

JB: We always have fish fingers and chips.

EC: When your kids were really little, you were feeding them rice, peas and ham. Stuff like that. And I was like, “Wow, he’s got this down. He’s mixing the vegetables. These are parenting goals.” But it sounds like you’re just like me.

JB: That was all for show. As soon as you were out the door – fish fingers and chips mashed up in a blender. Actually, that sounds like something John Spiers would make, but with vodka mixed in.

Anyway, back to career death…

EC: Haha!

The Wassail at the Union Chapel… does that turn into an album at some point in the future? Because it was the dreaded Christmas album in particular that you once feared, wasn’t it?

EC: Yeah, but once we’ve done it, I think we’re safe. Then there’s the tour.

A tour, you say?

EC: Yes, it’s not just a one-off.

JB: Christmas isn’t just for Christmas.

EC: [Laughs] It is being planned for 2023.

JB: Which actually means that we could record it in December, unlike every other Christmas album. They always get recorded in June. We could record it to the sound of genuine sneezing.

EC: Joy to the world!

Get your tickets for Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden’s Wassail from the Union Chapel Website. The event takes place on Tuesday, December 21st, at 7:30pm.